State of Play: Reflections on the Chelsea Academy

The dust has settled and the calm after the storm is gently guiding Chelsea Football Club from a somewhat controversial summer into the winter. Discontent is rarely far from Stamford Bridge and, though it seems unlikely to return in the next few months, in the wake of the departures of so many talented academy graduates who were far from content with their lot, thoughts inevitably drift towards what the future looks like.

The cold, hard facts are indisputable. Tammy Abraham, Fikayo Tomori, Marc Guehi, Iké Ugbo, Tino Livramento, Lewis Bate, Myles Peart-Harris, Dynel Simeu, Marcel Lewis, Pierre Ekwah and Charlie Wiggett all departed while under contract (or having been made an offer) with the Blues in the space of just 60 days in July and August. Tino Anjorin later joined Lokomotiv Moscow on loan with an option to buy that was generally expected to be triggered in January (a recent injury notwithstanding). Billy Gilmour, Conor Gallagher, Ethan Ampadu, Dujon Sterling and Armando Broja are among a 22-strong loan army this term with less than certain futures back at Stamford Bridge, regardless of how well they’re playing.

The facts will also show that the funds raised facilitated the signing Romelu Lukaku for a club record £97m fee, and that agreements for buyback fees were struck for Abraham, Guehi, Livramento and (if he goes) Anjorin, although it would cost the reigning European Champions more than £150m if they were to bring everyone home in the years to come. Whether or not Lukaku succeeds isn’t likely to serve as overall justification for the summer business but, while a promising start had at least eased the frustration felt by some parts of the fan base, a six-game barren run and subsequent injury saw some of those concerns return to the fore.

Chelsea sat out the 2019 summer transfer window under punishment by FIFA. Frank Lampard cashed in some of the freedom afforded to him by those restrictions and the sale of Eden Hazard to introduce several young players into the first team squad; a decision he was not forced into by the transfer ban. He inherited a squad that already had experienced internationals like Gary Cahill, David Luiz, Pedro, Michy Batshuayi, Davide Zappacosta and Tiemoue Bakayoko. That group alone had combined for 127 Chelsea appearances the year before, three of them featuring in the Europa League Final against Arsenal, but the younger generation were allowed to flourish in their place. That was a choice he made.

When they were allowed to sign players again, they did so with a rejuvenated young squad that now included some £300m of home-grown talent they didn’t need to go out and buy. That mean they were able to get Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, Hakim Ziyech, Ben Chilwell and Edouard Mendy, all key contributors in winning the Champions League after Thomas Tuchel took charge.

Had Lampard – or any other manager – persisted with the veteran core, they would have gone into the summer 2020 window needing to improve on many, many more areas of the squad than they eventually did, justifying the decision to show faith in the academy and giving them the opportunity to develop playing at the highest levels. Where they zigged in 2020, Chelsea then zagged in 2021, selling some of those players and the next ones off the conveyor belt to allow them to sign Lukaku.

Both approaches work, but one is arguably more sustainable than the other, particularly for a club like Chelsea. The quality and quantity of talent coming through Cobham – the academy was responsible either wholly or in part for some 20% of all England call-ups from senior to Under-16 during the October international break – theoretically means that ahead of any given season, there will be players well-positioned to either push for a place in the first-team squad, or to be moved on for a substantial profit. If the pathway into the first team is consistently open, a steady flow of players should continue to follow in the footsteps of their predecessors.

When there are doubts about those pathways, however, we know what can happen. Younger players have chosen to leave before, from Jamal Musiala and Sam Iling Junior to Dominic Solanke and even as far back to Frank Nouble in the modern academy era, but never have so many gone at once, and at different stages of development. The heart of Andy Myers’ Development Squad – champions in 2019-20 – was ripped out, leaving something of a void on the immediate production line, but also potentially influencing the behaviour of those coming up behind them.

Players talk. Families talk. Agents talk. Everyone in academy football talks and the perception of what the future looks like for young players at any given football club is affected by the treatment of those that have gone before them. Lampard and his staff, several of whom had worked on the ‘other side of the road’ at Cobham, had credit in hand, and convinced a dozen players to sign long-term deals within three months of his return to the club (Musiala’s departure was confirmed days before he was named manager).

Two years later, offers to Bate, Livramento and Peart-Harris – who were all entering the final year of their maiden professional contracts – were rejected, moves to Premier League clubs were swiftly arranged, and Livramento has already exploded into prominence. They had their doubts, and others will have similar concerns about whether they stand a realistic chance of getting the opportunity to prove they can be a Chelsea player. It would be wrong not to recognise that Levi Colwill and Armando Broja did pen new long-tem deals this summer but, if they find their route to the top blocked next spring, they won’t be short of offers to look elsewhere either.

‘Not everyone can make it’ is a common refrain, but it is also a straw man argument. Nobody expects or demands everyone to make it. A fair and meritocratic chance to prove themselves is what any footballer wants, yet has rarely been afforded, particularly at Chelsea, and few managers escape that scrutiny either. Even Lampard is closely tied to Tomori’s departure and certainly finds it hard to avoid criticism for how that relationship soured. The culture must come, and (often unintentionally) does come, from the very top of the club.

Manchester United have had at least one academy graduate in their matchday squad for every single fixture in the last 85 years, spanning more than 4,000 fixtures, and ensuring that 50% of every player to represent the club in that time has been developed by the club. Everton’s active streak is well past the 1,000 match milestone too. The two clubs have had very different fortunes on and off the pitch since the turn of the century but the process – for better or worse – has become an intrinsic part of their identity. It even survived the Jose Mourinho era at Old Trafford for United (the return of Paul Pogba was a timely addition in that regard). Any manager arriving at those clubs instantly knows what they have to sustain while trying to achieve their goals.

Chelsea themselves had a run of 1,609 matches between 1956 and 1988 where they could boast a similar claim during an altogether different era, yet they were also the first club in English football to name a starting eleven featuring no English players in 1999. They haven’t had a manager serve more than four full seasons since the mid-1980s, yet they are among the most successful clubs in England in that time, both before and since Roman Abramovich’s arrival at the club and are one of just four teams in Europe to have won the full collection of the Champions League, UEFA Cup/Europa League and the Cup Winners’ Cup.

Under Abramovich, they have lurched back and forth between different brands and styles of football under disparate managers assembling eclectic playing squads, oftentimes during the same season, but they have always managed to make it work. They have been accused of running an unsustainable operation that embarrasses the rich football heritage in England, but they have repeatedly laughed in the face of such folly. They are sustainably unsustainable. Their culture is Chelsea. It works.

Or it has worked.

Barcelona’s demise on and off the pitch has been chronicled extensively after a summer where they lost their greatest-ever player – an academy graduate no less – because they’d managed to get themselves into a position where they simply couldn’t afford him. The malaise had set in several years earlier, the self-inflicted problems had reached insurmountable levels and, while it’s extremely unlikely that Chelsea could suffer anything approaching the same fate (although in the perilous business of football, it doesn’t take much for something ‘nobody saw coming’ to happen), many of the same arguments posed by those in and around La Masia ring true for Cobham devotees in England.

Sergi Samper, a former Barca player and youth team graduate, reflects: “You need to sign players from outside, as Barca is the best club in the world, and aims to win everything.”

“But you need to sign players who can make the difference, while the back-ups always should be people developed at home.

“Sometimes there were signings that did not improve the squad. There were various (homegrown) players who were capable, if they had the opportunity to show it. When the team has had homegrown players is when the results have been the best.”

“What is very important is that players will not reach the first team if the first-team coach does not let them,” Xavi Martin, La Masia supremo from 2019 to 2021, also told The Athletic. “Pep Guardiola was brave enough to put in Pedro and Sergio Busquets, who a year previously had been playing in the third tier.

“Pep trusted in La Masia; Tito Vilanova, may he rest in peace, also. In the end, you need a coach who trusts in the players. If not, even if they are good, they cannot succeed if they do not get a chance to play.”

Others will remark that Barcelona were ‘lucky’ to be blessed with a generation full of world class players at the same time; remarks that almost always appear when a club produces a so-called ‘golden generation’. Remarks that do no justice whatsoever to the hard work and dedication of everyone who has contributed to that success and that ignore the fact that someone had to give them the trust and opportunity to become those world-class players.

Development is not linear and ‘if they’re good enough they’ll make it anyway’ has never been true. Barcelona claim their environment is unique, but every club can rightly say the same, just on a different scale and under a different ethos. The overarching point is that how a player develops elsewhere after leaving his formative club is not necessarily reflective of how he might have developed had he been given a fair and reasonable chance to continue climbing the ladder without leaving.

Several of the most memorable and iconic teams in the last thirty years of European football have been built around home-grown talent, whether front and centre or providing the reliability of dependable squad depth; mid-90s Ajax, late 90s Manchester United, Guardiola-era Barcelona (and 2010 World Champions Spain by association), mid-10s Bayern Munich (and 2014 World Champions Germany). There is a reason these teams are revered long after their time and, putting sentiment aside, there has never been a time in modern football where it was more important to avoid unnecessary spending. The advantages of having a productive academy are obvious.

An interesting curiosity of the players that have ‘made it’ at Chelsea in the last few years comes in the ages they joined the club at. Abraham, Tomori, Mason Mount, Reece James, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Guehi, Anjorin, Broja and Trevoh Chalobah all signed for the Blues at first opportunity in the Under-9 age group, and were each involved with local development centres long before they were eligible to officially put pen to paper. Gilmour and Andreas Christensen both signed in their age-16 season to become first-year scholars, as did Ampadu. There is, inherently, something compelling about a player who goes all the way through the same club from the very earliest stages of development and Chelsea have done it repeatedly in the last couple of years.

To find a player who joined somewhere in between and went on to make any sort of impact in the first-team you have to look to Nathaniel Chalobah, who joined aged 10, scarcely much older than his successors in breaking through. Ola Aina joined at Under-11 but for every instance like him, you can double back and find a Tariq Lamptey or Dujon Sterling for the younger ages or an Ian Maatsen or Charly Musonda for the Under-16s.

This leads us to ask the question as to whether there is an ideal pathway through to the first team, as well as a pathway into the first team. Does a young prospect stand a better chance of making the grade at Chelsea – or any other elite institution – by simply being exposed to a decade-plus of high-level education there? And by the same token, do players acquired at the age of 16, developed elsewhere and identified as the cream of the crop not already residing at Cobham, stand just as good of a chance of getting an opportunity because they have been targeted for that very reason?

Academy players in junior age groups tend to sign two-year agreements that take them through to the end of their Under-12, 14 and 16 seasons, and there is often a lot of movement in and out of those squads as boys develop on and off the pitch at a much less predictable rate than they do when they’re older and a little more mature. Recruitment can often be as much speculative as it is focused on long-term potential, and it’s increasingly manipulated by agents and intermediaries who sense an opportunity to make a quick profit on a player and his (understandably) naïve family by moving them at the age of 14 with the promise of a scholarship and first pro deal that doesn’t always materialise.

And who can blame those families? A significant number of academy hopefuls come from underprivileged backgrounds and the promise of footballing success offers financial hope they might otherwise never get close to. If that offer comes along earlier than expected, is it wrong to expect them to wait for a second chance that doesn’t arrive?

One agent is clear on how things are going: “The reality is that, by the time the lads reach the year in which they turn 16 (when an agency can sign them), they are already well and truly committed to an agency owing to agents approaching their parents from a silly young age and acting as though they have the kid’s best interests at heart. Truth is they are seen as potential cash cows and the moment they fail to project an income, they’ll be dumped out on their arses.”

All of which is to say that, in an industry where fewer than 1% of all academy players will enjoy a professional playing career, those spending more than half of their lives within an elite system must surely stand a better chance than most of making the grade. An education at Chelsea can readily be viewed as an investment in one of the finest finishing schools in the country, even if they leave prematurely, as the likes of Declan Rice have shown, but the odds are stacked that little bit more against them. How this overall balance changes in a post-Brexit market in England will be fascinating as clubs jostle to sign the best talent out there a year or two earlier than they traditionally have been, and it will in turn inform decisions about best practice and the optimum journey from Under-9 to first-teamer.

In summing up a successful 2020-21 season overall for the academy, Neil Bath referenced the academy’s long-term focus and ‘Vision 2030’ which is set to drive the youth development programme for the rest of the decade with ‘innovative and creative ideas’ designed to ensure Chelsea remain at the top of the academy game. This means they want to continue to be the number one club for talented young footballers to be at, they want to continue to develop players for the first team at a healthy rate, they want to push even more players into professional careers in the game, and they want to make sure they continue to be well-represented at youth international age groups for England in particular, and other countries where possible.

So how do they do that? Given they’ve achieved all of that over the past decade, it would be easy to rest on their laurels and assume that the continuation of their work will continue to yield successful results. Yet they’re now competing in an even tougher environment with local and national rivals able to invest similar sums into their academy operations, rival them for talent on and off the pitch, and offer Chelsea’s own talents alternative pathways into professional football.

To fight back and make sure that the trophy-laden 2010s and successful academy integration of the (post-)Lampard era is not the end of the story, they must up their game. Their recruitment across London and the South East is still the envy of every one of their capital rivals, regularly getting players from territory that ought to be dominated by someone else, and they’re able to offer a robust and successful full time training model for hopefuls aged 14 and older. A coaching production line that has sent almost as many successful graduates into high-level football as it has players remains strong and Bath in particular is driven to ensure that all academy staff are given the opportunity to make the personal and professional progress they need to realise their potential.

Chelsea’s is certainly not a model that needs to be ripped up and started from scratch, and it’s a case of evolution over revolution, but it will all come down to whether they can continue to cultivate an environment that the best players want to be a part of and that offers a meaningful and realistic chance of progressing into the first team, whoever the manager might be. The club’s Under-16s were recently crowned national champions at their age group, an accolade also claimed by several of their predecessors en route to the very top of the game, so the talent remains abundant.

The pandemic has ravaged football clubs’ finances across the world and even the Premier League has felt the pinch. Would Chelsea have been able to afford Lukaku if they weren’t able to fund it through the sales of academy graduates? Perhaps, but they probably wouldn’t have chosen to do so, such has been the method to their madness in recent years. The club aren’t due to publish their accounts for the behind-closed-doors 20-21 season until early in 2022 but the results will be particularly interesting to see just how pandemic-proof they were able to be.

We’re not yet a year removed from them being among a dozen clubs determined to break away and form the European Super League primarily to their own financial advantage. If they are unable to continue spending as they once did, and they’re certainly no closer to a larger stadium that would increase their matchday and commercial revenue, then they must continue to look towards the academy to either populate the first team squad or to boost the transfer budget. Whether they’re able to do that or not relies just as much on the tangible belief in a realistic pathway for those players deserving of it as it does the work put in by the academy. If talented youngsters don’t believe they can break through, you might well see more Bates (£1.5m+), Livramentos (£5m) and Peart-Harris’ (£1m+) leaving before making their senior debuts, and Chelsea likely won’t be able to command the fees required to sustain top-level transfer business.

It’s easy to think that things are set up for long-term success, with a world-class squad able to compete on all fronts for a while to come. The core of the squad is at peak age and they have young talent in attacking positions, including the creator and scorer of May’s Champions League winning goal both still being just 22. But, as always, things can change in a moment. Kepa arrived for a club-record fee hailed as the goalkeeper of the future only to be readily supplanted by Edouard Mendy, unemployed seven years earlier, and has since emerged as a world-beater and record-breaker. Uncertainty still reigns over the likes of Hudson-Odoi and Christian Pulisic, both players affected by injury, while an apparent conveyor belt of home-grown talent in defence has suddenly lost Tomori, Guehi, Livramento and Lamptey in no time whatsoever. Football changes quickly and what might seem to be a strong situation can suddenly be anything but.

This is the dilemma facing Chelsea right now, but the good news is that they have everything in their power to forge a successful future. They need to show that the door is open and that the academy will not return to being an afterthought, as it was under so many managers of the past.

Perhaps the early signs this season are promising, or maybe they’re not. Chalobah has become a regular part of the centre-back rotation and recently signed a new long-term deal, but only after taking full advantage of a pre-season that didn’t include several senior players for a while, and after a much-vaunted deal for Jules Koundé fell through. Ruben Loftus-Cheek – approaching age 26, if we can even call him a young player now – has forced his way back into contention but only after Saul Niguez was drafted in as a preferential option in central midfield. Harvey Vale and Teddy Sharman-Lowe were on the bench for the League Cup tie against Southampton but, despite having five subs available to use and facing a ‘weakened’ Saints team, there was no debut for Vale while three subs went unused, and it was a similar story a week later against Malmö.

It remains a source of confusion that players like Ross Barkley and Malang Sarr have been included in the team for important matches not long after the club spent the summer transfer window trying every which way possible to secure their departures. Credit goes to Tuchel for fostering a positive atmosphere in the squad and making them feel included once it emerged that they were both to stay until January at least, but those choices don’t go unnoticed at academy level. If openings that were already scarce are closed even more because minutes are being handed to players without a realistic future at the club, well, you have problems.

Some might see the developments of the first third of the season as encouraging, but others feel that little of this was by design, and that is an unsustainable way to work with young talent. Yes, there’s now a core of established home-grown talent in the squad, but what of the next crop? It’s one thing for the manager to say, “we will always try to push guys through but in the end, let’s be honest, it’s a matter of quality and not where you come from”, but another altogether to disregard exactly how those who have ‘made it’ got there. The opportunities must be forthcoming to reach those heights while at Chelsea, not just out on loan.

Tuchel’s candid response when asked about his contract situation shortly after signing was a stark reminder of how the club operates, saying “if I am good, they will make me stay. If I am not good, they will sack me anyway”. The same questions will continue to be asked. It’s incumbent on the board, as the custodians of the club, to make sure that words are followed by actions and to guide those entrusted with coaching the first team towards a desired philosophy of squad-building. The last two years suggest that the academy needs to be a big part of that. The clock is always ticking.